On reflection, it was not the best of interviews. I fear I over-egged the cake. Talking about my experience teaching students with additional educational needs, I talked about oracy, oral literacy. I even got in a point about there being no written examinations before 1792.
The interview panel looked bemused.
‘Oracy’ was a word new to me during teacher training, the verbal equivalent of literacy, oracy is defined as ‘the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech’.”
Early in my teaching career I realised that oracy and literacy may have little in common.
In thirty years of ministry in the church, there were frequent encounters with people who might have possessed a wonderful level of literacy, might have been brilliantly fluent on paper, might have been capable of articulating thoughts both profound and moving, but when the moment came to give voice to such thoughts, found themselves unable to express orally what they had written. It might have been hard to reconcile the words read with the words spoken, the skills of literacy were not matched by those of oracy.
In school, there seems often to be a situation that is the reverse of that experienced in the church, there are students with gifts of oracy whose level of literacy might be, at best, basic and, at worst, almost non-existent.
My favourite example was a lesson on the concepts of absolute and relative morality with a class of students who had just started secondary school.
Thought was given to the idea that there were actions that were always right or were always wrong, regardless of the circumstances, and to the idea that there were ideas and actions where considerations of right and wrong were relative to the circumstances. Students were introduced to the idea of absolute morality developed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the idea that morality did not depend on context, but was something that was consistent and unchanging.
The students in the lesson were members of the weakest set, they were students whose handwriting and spelling and grammar left much to be desired, their skills of literacy were very limited.
The class was asked to imagine that they accepted the absolute moralist idea that one should always be consistent, and to imagine that, in this situation, consistency meant never telling a lie.
They were presented with a scenario to consider where a crazed axe murderer came to the door of their house demanding to know the whereabouts of one of the class’s friends who was in the house hiding under the bed. Could they both tell the truth and protect the friend from harm?
One student articulated a clear and perceptive outline of the problem, employing skills of oracy which far surpassed the literacy ability.
Inevitably, no matter how fluent their oracy may be, students will be judged on their literacy.
Yet if one returned to the early days of the universities, to the times before 1792, when paper was not readily available and writing materials were expensive, students were examined and judged on their capacity to speak their thoughts. Why might oracy not regain a parity of esteem with written work?